Do You Know What Happens To Your Emails When You Die?

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March 2, 2012

I’m not sure about you, but I would be highly agitated if someone went through my emails, dead or alive. I have a lot of personal stuff tucked away in those folders on my Gmail account.

I realize that I could die tomorrow, and so could you – so what exactly should we be doing about our privacy and the fact that if something were to happen, would our family members or friends be able to see our innermost private emails? And, if we did take the time, prior, to delete some of these – would they be able to contact our friends and family on our contact list?

Statistics say that if you are under 50 years old, you most likely have a contact list on the Internet somewhere, and nothing existing in the physical realm for contact information.

How would they access your information to plan a funeral? How would they let your closest friends know of your demise, or even if you were incapacitated?

These are questions that recently have been raised by many different email providers, as well as social media sites and blog managers, the legal industry and people like you and me.

What exactly happens to all of our ‘digital’ stuff if something were to happen? Have we prepared a ‘digital will’ or a guideline for our families to follow? How on earth would they ever be able to access our accounts?

One such incident happened to a man that lost his son in the Iraq war. He went into his son’s email account trying to find a way to contact his friends and close acquaintances – but could not gain access. He did not have a password.

The email service was Yahoo, and this man ended up having to take Yahoo to court to gain access to his deceased son’s emails. Well, you can imagine, it was much too late to contact friends and family by the time the court granted him access.

Would you want your family to experience this? I wouldn’t. It’s time to look into the death procedures of each of our email service providers so that we can leave some type of guideline for our friends and family.

Google’s Gmail:

Google has a pretty stringent policy, stating that IF a family member has passed away – and in rare cases – they may be able to allow the content to an authorized representative of the user. They take privacy pretty seriously.

To gain access to your deceased family members account takes the following: (From Google).

  1. Your full name
  2. Your physical mailing address
  3. Your email address
  4. A photocopy of your government-issued ID or driver’s license
  5. The Gmail address of the deceased user
  6. The death certificate of the deceased user. If the document is not in English, please provide a certified English translation prepared by a competent translator and notarized
  7. The following information from an email message that you have received at your email address, from the Gmail address in question:
    • The full header from the email message. See instructions on how to find headers in Gmail and other webmail email providers. Copy everything from ‘Delivered-To:’ through the ‘References:’ line
    • The entire content of the message

Oh, but that isn’t all – there is a Part TWO, stating that when they receive this information, they will review it and let you know, via email, whether they will be able to move beyond part 1, to the next steps of the process. If you don’t pass part 1, you will have to get legal counsel to get it for you, basically.

From Google: Please note that submitting these materials will not guarantee that we will be able to provide Gmail content so we recommend not embarking on Part 2 until you hear back from us regarding Part 1.


If you were to read the entire ‘terms and conditions’ Yahoo asks it’s users to sign, you’d be surprised at the detail and length of their protective legal jargon.

However, if someone were to die Yahoo’s privacy policy is such that nobody is getting into that email account, as stated:

No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability. You agree that your Yahoo! account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.

So, what can you do? You set up a roadmap for your family in a digital will, and include User Id’s, email address, and password. That is about the only way your family is going to gain access should they need to contact friends and family quickly, or for any other reason.


Hotmail or MSN have some pretty stringent rules as well – although they allow 6 months time for you to get the proper documents to them and if approved, they will send you the contents to the users account, as well as contact lists. You must notify them via email though, to let them know you are gathering the proper documents.

If they don’t hear from you within those 6 months, the account and all of its contents will be deleted from their system. They will not reset or allow access, and upon receipt of the proper documents the account will be closed.

The requirements are: (From Hotmail)

  • An e-mail address that can be used to contact you in case of questions
  • A shipping address to ship the data to (Note: We cannot send data to a P.O. box)
  • A document that states that you are the benefactor or the executor to the deceased’s estate and/or that you have power of attorney for an incapacitated customer and/or are next of kin
  • A photocopy of your driver’s license or other government- issued identification
  • A photocopy of the death certificate or, for an incapacitated customer, a signed note from the attending physician attesting to the incapacitated state of the customer
  • Account name (Note: Include the account name on all page of any faxed or mailed documents)
  • First and last name of the person who owns the account
  • Date of birth
  • City, state, and ZIP Code/Postal Code
  • The approximate date of account creation
  • The approximate date of last sign in

This information is then mailed to Hotmail’s mailing address.

Of course, the above are the most used email service providers on the Internet. For email clients that remain on your computer, such as Outlook; Apple Mail; Thunderbird and Eudora, these can be accessed much easier than the web email systems because all of the data is on the computer’s hard drive.

So – get busy, and start deleting those unnecessary emails you hold onto – and start making a list of things you might want the people you leave behind, to know – i.e. a digital roadmap (Will) for them would make life much easier for those you love.

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